eComm reborn well

Today I am at eComm, a reborn conference. Tim O’Reilly, who does the eTech conference (which just took place last week) used to run an emerging telecom conference called eTel. They decided not to run it again, so some of the participants who wanted a little more edgy telecom conference pushed to start a different one. I had hoped it would be an ad-hoc conference in the barcamp/unconference style, but instead it’s become a more traditional $1K conference like eTel was.

However, the result seems to be a success. Very good list of speakers (though some are just doing sales pitches as their talks) and a decent sized crowd. And even a few people who were also just at SXSW (as I was.) Some are calling the chain of conferences — eTech, SXSW, eComm, VON and many others as “March Madness.” It does seem possible to spend the month of March, if not your whole life, at conferences.

We’ll see what interesting develops here. Thom Howe spoke to try to convince carriers to become commodity providers, using the example of corn to say that it can be lucrative. He’s right that they need to become commodities but wrong that they can be convinced to want it.

(And corn turns out to be a terrible example. Corn is everywhere because of abuse of the law and corruption in government, in combination with sugar quota.)

Put my PIN into the phone number

When you call to get your voice mail, even from your cell phone, it typically asks for a PIN. There's a reason for that -- there is no authentication on Caller ID, and anybody can forge it. So if you don't require a PIN, and the voice mail let you in directly, anybody could listen to your voice mail or hack it in other ways. (The phone companies could of course authenticate Caller ID within their own networks, but this must be harder than it sounds because they don't.) Some services don't bother with a PIN if they identify the caller ID because the odds of somebody trying to hack it are low. In some cases that's because the hacking party would need to know what services a person uses.

Setting caller ID is actually pretty useful. I have coded into my PBX to call my cell phone voice mail using the caller ID of my cell phone, so I have a speed dial on my desk phone that calls my Sprint voice mail. I do still have to enter the PIN.

So here's the idea. Get a bank of phone number, 10,000 of them, for voice mail dial-in. This can be a bank in some rural area code that still has entire exchanges free. Getting an entire exchange is not trivial but turns out to be not that expensive if you can justify it. Then let a user with a PIN put that PIN into the last 4 digits of the phone number. They would call that special number, and only that number, to pick up their voice mail (or use whatever service.) If somebody called other numbers in the block using their caller-ID, this would be a sign of an attack, and too many attempts would turn on a switch so that any call to any number in the block now requires some identification. (This is a minor DOS attack but not too bad of one if you can still remember a different ID code.)

This done you can put your magic, PIN-embedded number into your speed dial and just use that for instant access to voice mail or other services.

Of course the rural number will look like long distance, but that's no issue to your own phone company. Indeed, if you only want this for use by phone companies for internal calls, we could devote an entire virtual area code -- but you could not call these numbers from another phone. All companies could share the area code because it would not actually exist. (Of course, authenticating their own caller-ID is easier, this is just a kludge to do it with existing tools.)

A block in the 866/877/888 band of toll-free numbers would be nice too but these are harder to come by.

No "get out of jail free" card for the phone companies

I only post a modest number of EFF news items here, because I know that if you want to see them all, you should be reading some of the EFF blogs such as deeplinks or or action alerts or EFFector or others.

However, something remarkable is happening. As you may know, we filed suit against AT&T because we have evidence they allowed the government to engage in a massive spying program within the US without warrants or other proper legal authority. Special secret rooms were installed in San Francisco and other locations, rooms under the control of the NSA, and massive data pipes with all internet traffic and more were forked and fed into these NSA rooms. We want to get to the bottom of this, and punish the phone companies if they violated the very explicit laws which were set up after watergate to stop the President from doing this exact sort of thing. Congress told the phone companies that Nixon showed us we can’t trust the President all the time, and so they have a duty to protect their customers as well, even if the President tells them not to.

But as our lawsuit has progressed, forces are pushing Congress to not just enable this spying, but to grant a retroactive amnesty on the phone companies that violated the law. In one sense I am glad our lawsuit has scared them so much — you know you are on to something when they try to get congress to pass retroactive laws to stop your lawsuits — but the enormity of such action boggles my mind.

The phone companies and White House are pushing for a “get out of jail free” card for their past activity. Whatever you think about the need for such massive surveillance, retroactive immunities are something else entirely. Allowing such immunities will let the President tell people, “Don’t worry whether this is illegal or not. As you can see, I can make it legal.” Congress might give him the proof he needs to back up such claims. It doesn’t matter that he won’t be able to “make it legal” every time he promises it. The fact that he did it this time is still going to get more people to feel at less risk in joining illegal conspiracies. It undermines the rule of law.

The American people need to convince their Senators and House members not to do this. If your rep has already decided they like the surveillance program — even if you have decided you like it — they must realize this get out of jail free card is a horrible idea.

You can use our action alert system to find your rep and their phone numbers, and give them a call. Calls matter the most. See if your reps are on the right committees and talk to them about it.

The house was ready to pass a bill without immunity and pro-immunity forces scuttled it and are pushing to get it added. Call House Members

The Senate Intelligence community passed a bill with Telco immunity in it. The Judiciary committe is now looking at it. Call Senate Members

Bluetooth necklaces

More and more people are walking around Borg-ified with bluetooth earpieces. It's convenient, and a good idea when driving, but otherwise looks goofy and also wears on the ear. I've been a big seeker of headset devices that are wireless, but meant to be only put on while talking, and thus very easy to put on and remove. Self-contained bluetooth devices, with the battery in them, tend to be hard to put on. Nothing I have seen is as easy to put on (or as bulky) as a typical headphone headband.

I thought of something you could quickly clip onto your glasses but the weight will tilt them. It should be possible to build bluetooth eyeglass frames with thick over-ear sections with the battery, slightly thick arms (ideally not too dorky) for the electronics and a microphone hidden in the bridge (though it might pick up breathing a bit too much.)

Another idea is a microphone in a necklace, but just the microphone. It's a good place to get sound and it's far from the speakers which is good. One could imagine a permanently worn necklace/pendant and them another piece which is put on the ear or head for calls. Some vendors are selling "bluetooth pendant" headphones which have earbuds which plug into a pendant worn on the neck today.

My necklace could work with a 2nd wireless part (meaning two batteries) that comes from the pocket or snaps onto the pendant itself. Or a combination eyeglass frames with speaker and pendant with microphone. Of course, no phone is able to understand talking to two devices for the mic and speakers as yet, and while that could be fixed in the future, this system would need one of the devices to talk to the other and combine the signals for the phone, which is wasteful but doable.

Another way around that would be a retractable earbud or other earpiece that pulls out of the pendant and retracts back into it. Or this could be something that hangs on glasses.

Of course the pendant could also vibrate for calls, and show you the caller-ID. These pendants could be designed by fashion designers as jewelry, and not look so borgish. Some models might be super thing and be designed to be worn unobtrusively under the shirt (but still in range of good sound) for people who don't want it to be so obvious. They could be pulled out of the shirt for calls if need be for superior voice.

And please, no bright blinking LED just to tell me you're alive!

Instead of hold music, natural sounds?

We all hate waiting on hold, and we shouldn’t have to. But companies don’t do a lot to make it easier, do they?

Most people, I presume, when at their desks, put the hold music on speakerphone, and turn it low. The worst hold musics are ones where a human voice breaks in every 30 seconds or so to remind us that “all agents are busy” or tries to convince us to go to the web site or buy something else. These are the worst because we have to perk up and listen to the human voice to make sure it’s not the agent finally getting to us.

Some places offer silence, which is OK, though it makes us suspicious after a while that we might not actually be on hold any more. A good solution there would be to respond to any touch tones the user types with a “Yes, we’re still holding. Press 1 for music or we’ll continue with silence.” Some insert a beep every so often, but that also distracts.

The best ones put a distinctive sound (ideally loud) when you’re about to be connected to the agent, so you can listen for just that.

One thing I’ve not seen is the use of natural sounds instead of music. By that I mean those tapes people use to relax — waves rolling in, babbling brooks, woodland sounds. These are good because we seem to have a natural ability to hear them without noticing them. If we focus on them, we know they are there, but otherwise we edit them out. And no royalties for the musicans, either.

My hold music is Jazz recordings my mother made during her singing career. She loves it when I put her on hold!

Of course, long hold periods simply should not be. Some systems let you enter your number to be called back when the agent is ready, but people are afraid of those because if they happen to be on the phone or busy, they will lose their coveted place in line. Some day this will no longer be the case.

How to get a subsidy on any phone (even an iPhone)

This idea came to me via Al Chang. I’m shopping for a new smartphone, and I have been dismayed at how hard it is to get just what I want and not pay a huge fee for it. Right now I’m leaning towards the new HTC Mogul, in part because the Sprint SERO offer is just too good to pass up.

However, in the GSM world, one thing that’s frustrating is that carriers only provide a limited number of phones, and in some cases, such as the Nokia E62, they actually rip useful features out of the phones before offering them. (The E61 has Wifi, the E62 removes it!) But the subsidy, which can be $200 to $300 is also too rich to pass up if you’re signing up for new service. If they are going to force you into a 2 year contract — which they do for anything, even just a change of plan — you are foolish not to take this subsidy.

So here’s Al’s plan. Go out and buy the phone you want, unlocked (or locked to the carrier you plan to use) from whatever source you like, including cell dealers, Amazon, Dell or eBay.

Next go to your carrier’s web site and find the most subsidized phone they sell which works with the plan you intend to use. Find the most subsidized phone by looking at the subsidy price, and comparing it to the typical “completed auction” price on eBay for a no-contract (locked or unlocked) phone. It is often the case, by the way, that there are eBay sellers who will sell you phones that cost $200 after subsidy in the carrier’s store for $1 because they kick back to you the kickback they get from the carrier for selling you a fancy phone on a fancy plan. (I have not tried these sellers but they generally have top reputations and lots of happy comments from phone buyers so I presume it works. It does not, however, work with SERO.)  read more »

Jobs warns knockoff iPhone "lacks many key features"

Steve Jobs of Apple Computer warned today that a rumoured cheap Chinese iPhone knockoff making its way toward America is an inferior product which lacks many of the important features of the iPhone. “It may look a bit like an iPhone, but when consumers discover all the great iPhone features that are missing from it, we think they’ll still line up at Apple Stores for the genuine article,” said Jobs in a released statement. Designed by software nerds, the knockoff, dubbed the “myPhone” by fans, has not yet been confirmed.

Apple released a list of features reported to be missing from the “myPhone.”

  • The iPhone has special software that assures you will always use the trusted AT&T cellular network. Lacking this software, the myPhone accepts any SIM card from any random network. Users may find themselves connected to a network that doesn’t have the reputation for service, trust and protecting the privacy of customers that AT&T has. Or its data speed which is almost double what we’re used to with dialup.
  • With the myPhone, users may be stuck without 2 years of guaranteed AT&T service and won’t get their price locked in for 2 years. AT&T’s EDGE network is so good “you won’t find yourself able to quit.”
  • The iPhone is configured to assure you the latest iTunes experience. The myPhone might function before you have installed the latest iTunes and registered your phone with it. Indeed, the myPhone lacks the protections that block it from being used without registering it with or reporting back to anybody, depriving the user of customer service and upsell opportunities.
  • The iPhone has special software that assures all applications run on the iPhone have been approved by Apple, which protects the user from viruses and tools that may make the user violate their licence agreements. The myPhone will run any application, from any developer, opening up the user to all sorts of risks.
  • The iPhone protects users from dangerous Flash and Java applications which may compromise their device and confuse the user experience.
  • myPhones don’t forbid VoIP software that may cause the user to accidentally make calls over wireless internet connections instead of the AT&T network. Quality on the internet is unpredictable, as is the price, which can range down to zero, causing great pricing uncertainty. With the iPhone, you always know what calls cost when in the USA.
  • The iPhone saves the user from receiving distracting instant messages over popular IM services, adding calm to your day.
  • Music and videos in the iPhone are protected by Apple FairPlay brand DRM. On the myPhone, which lacks the important DRM functionality, music can be freely copied to other devices the user owns, putting the user at risk of infringing copyrights.
  • The iPhone assures users will only play media files in approved formats, and not risky open source formats.
  • The iPhone protects the user from setting a song in their device as a ringtone, saving those around him from annoyance and protecting the user from violating music copyrights and performance rights.
  • The iPhone bluetooth functions have careful security management. Users are protected from using bluetooth to exchange files with other users (such files are risky) or accidentally printing or communicating with your computer. Bluetooth is only used for headsets and headphones as was intended. The myPhone lacks these important protections.
  • The iPhone only uses its internal flash drive. The user is protected against hard drives, which have moving parts and can put data at risk.
  • The myPhone battery has a removable door over it, which can get lost, or allow the battery to fall out or be stolen. The iPhone’s battery is solidly protected. Users are also assured they will use only Apple certified batteries and not subject to the risk of aftermarket batteries, which may explode, killing the user.
  • The iPhone is for sale only in the USA and primarily for use there. This encourages users to stay home in America which is good for the economy and their own peace of mind.
  • The iPhone, unlike the myPhone and all other cell phones, sells at a very solid markup for Apple, assuring Apple executives and stockholders will be happy, and the company will be around to support the iPhone for years to come. The myPhone, it is rumoured, will be purchasable in a wide variety of stores, confusing the buyer with too much choice, price wars and depriving them of the special experience of an Apple or AT&T store.
  • As a result, the myPhone lacks the Apple brand “coolness” which is built into the iPhone and every other Apple product. “Nobody’s going to have to spend days in line for a myPhone,” said Jobs. “You won’t have people thrusting them in your face all week to show you how cool they are.” Many iPhone users report their experience waiting in line was great fun, and that they met all sorts of new people.

MyPhones are predicted to sell for $350 without contract, $150 with a 2 year contract to the provider of your choice.  read more »

Where to look in a videoconference

In a chat I had recently with another communications geek, we talked about the well known problem of videoconferencing systems. You look at a person on the screen, and the camera is not where you are looking, so eye contact is not possible.

There have been a few solutions tried for this. You can have a display with a beam-splitting mirror that allows a camera to see a well lit subject, at some cost of quality of the image. You still need to keep the camera on the eyes. There has been some experimentation with software that would have cameras at the left and right of the screen and combine the two images to make one from a virtual camera at the eye point, or sometimes more simply to rewrite the image of the eye to move the pupil to the right place. That turns out to be hard to do because we are very discerning about eyes looking “natural” though it may become possible.

Another approach has been semi-transparent displays a camera can look through, but we like our displays to be crisp and bright. A decade ago I saw guys claiming they could build a display that could focus light without a lens, so each cell could have a sensor, but I have not seen anything come of this. In the end, most people try to place the camera near the top of the screen, and the image right under it.

Having the image under the camera makes the person look like they are looking down. This causes some women to perceive this as something else they frequently see — men staring at their chests when they talk to them. Yes, we’re pretty much all guilty of this.

So I came up with an amusing, not entirely serious answer, namely to put the camera below the image and then, for men at least, stare at her chest, or an imaginary one below the edge of the screen. Then you would be looking at the camera and thus at the other person.

Amusingly, when videophones are shown on TV, we almost always see the people staring right into them, because they are TV actors who know how to find their camera.

Video virtual reunion

Videophones are still an early adopter thing, but I was imagining an interesting application for them — reunions. Recently a theatre company I was in had a reunion far away, and I couldn’t come, but I wanted somebody to bring in a laptop so we could run a SIP or Skype videophone there. It would not have given me a true sense of participation, but individuals I wanted to catch up on could have come to the video phone and chatted.

Most conferencing applications assume there is going to be one big meeting with everybody talking together. That’s useful, but I can see a use for something that facilitates a lot of parallel one-on-one or small group conversations, for something like a reunion. In fact, one might be able to do a decent reunion entirely on the internet, or mostly on it.  read more »

Whoops,'s pants fall off

Apparently is now sending notes to its customers (one of whom forwarded an example to me) because Sprint, Cingular, Qwest and some others finally got around to blocking calls to their numbers. They pitch it as the big companies trying to block their free service so the giants can sell expensive services, and are trying to whip up support by suggesting this is akin to a network neutrality violation.

In fact, it’s an example of the big guys actually doing something right, and fixing a loophole caused by bizarre legacy telco regulation. The number you called for freeconference, and many other services, were served by telcos in rural areas such as Iowa. The phone regulations are set up so that when you make a long distance call on the PSTN, the long distance company pays the remote local phone company to complete the call. Usually that fee is about half a cent per minute in cities, and even free for cell phones. (Frankly, it should always be zero, and this should be paid for as part of my local phone fee, but that’s another story.) In Iowa, however, in order to, in theory, help pay the costs of being a phone company that has to send the call out to a lonely Iowa farmhouse, the rural telcos get to charge as much as 6 cents or more per minute to complete the call.  read more »

Bluetooth headsets as virtual headsets in a PBX

It’s nice to have a headset on your desk telephone, for handsfree conversations. A number of phones have a headset jack, either of the submini plug used by cell phones, or using a phone handset jack. Many companies buy headset units that plug into the handset line to provide a headset, some of them are even wireless.

But bluetooth headsets today are cheap, standardized and have a competitive market. And they are of course wireless. Many people already have them for their cell phone. I have seen a very small number of desk phones support having a bluetooth headset, and that shouldn’t be al that expensive, but it’s rare and only on high-end phones.

Here’s the idea: Put bluetooth headset support into the PBX. Bluetooth headsets can’t dial, they can effectively only go on-hook and off-hook with a single button. You would associate (in the PBX) your bluetooth headset with your desk phone. A bluetooth master would be not too far from your desk, and tied into the PBX, or into a PC that talks to the PBX. When your BT headset was in range of this master, it would be tied to ith with Bluetooth. (You would have to do an actual bluetooth pairing in advance. In addition, many people have bluetooth headsets normally linked to their cell phone, and call attempts from the headset go to the cell phone. The system would have to switch that over to the PBX.)  read more »

The wireless watch as a PDA/phone extension

I wrote earlier about the bluetooth vibrator watch. I pushed this in part to promote the idea that phones should (almost) never ring. That ringing is rude to others and violates your own privacy, too.

Sony, Citizen and some others are now releasing bluetooth watches that go beyond this. Your watch should become a very small control station for your larger PDA/phone. Of course digital watches have a small screen, and there are also some nice analog watches where the background of the watch is secretly a screen. This should become cheaper with time.

As before, when a call comes in, your watch should gently vibrate or even just tingle your skin with a small charge. On the screen should be the caller-ID, and the buttons should be marked with choices, such as rejecting the call or accepting it. (These features will be in some of the upcoming bluetooth watches) If you accept it, the caller would hear you saying that you are getting out your real headset/handset and will talk to them in a few seconds. If you were in a meeting, they might be told it will be more than a few seconds, as you must excuse yourself from the room.

Your watch of course knows if it is on your wrist in many ways, including temperature, so the phone can know to actually ring if you’ve taken the watch off — for example when going to bed, if you want it to ring when you’re in bed, that is.

As the screens increase in resolution, they could also show things like the subject of emails and pages. No more pulling out the blackberry or cell phone — just a subtle glance at your watch when it tingles. Be nice if you can set your presence on your watch so that all calls go to voice mail, too.

Most flip phones have a 2nd small screen on them so you can see the time and caller-id when the phone is closed. This would not be needed if you use a watch like this, so the cost of the phone can be reduced to make up for the more expensive watch.

Your watch could also bind to your desk phone at the office. And the phone would also know if you are in the office or not.

Imagine a world of peace where you’re never hearing phones going off, and you aren’t seeing people constantly pulling out phones and blackberries to check calls and messages. Imagine a world where people no longer wear cell phones on their belts, either.

The watch could have a small headset in it too, but that would add bulk, and I think it’s better to pull out a dedicated one.

The only real downside to this — you would probably have to charge your watch once a week. This might not easily fit in with the smaller ladies’ watch designs. It should be possible in any larger design. E-ink technology, which takes no power to run a display, could also make a great material for the background of your watch dial, or even display a tolerable virtual watch dial for the many who prefer an analog set of hands. It might be necessary to design a protocol even lower power than bluetooth to give the watches even better battery life, and of course a standard charging interface found in hotels and offices would be great.

I think once this happens it will be hard to imagine how we tolerated it any other way. Yes, people get fun and status from their ringtones, but I think we can handle sacrificing that.

The watch could also be a mini-screen for a few other PDA and phone functions. For example, if you use a bluetooth earpiece, you can keep your phone in your pocket or purse, which is really nice, but sometimes you want a bit of display, for example to assist with voice command mode.

(Of course if you know about Voxable, you know I believe phone calls should simply not happen at all at the wrong times, but that’s a different leap.)

Subsidize customers, not phones

As you may know, if you buy a cell phone today, you have to sign up for a 1 or 2 year contract, and you get a serious discount on the phone, often as much as $200. The stores that sell the phones get paid this subsidy when they sell to you, if you buy from a carrier you just get a discount. The subsidy phones are locked so you can’t go and take them to another carrier, though typically you can get them unlocked for a modest fee either by the carrier or unlock shops.

The phones are locked in a different way, in that this subsidy pretty much makes everybody buy their phone through a carrier. Since you are going to sign up with a carrier for a year or two anyway, you would be stupid not to. And except for prepaid, signing up even without a subsidy phone still requires a contract, you just don’t get anything for it.

Because of this, it is carriers that shop for phones, not consumers. The carriers tell the handset makers what to provide, and quite often, what not to provide. Subsidy phones tend to come with features disabled, such as bluetooth access for your laptop to sync the address book or connect to the internet. A number of PDA phones are sold with 802.11 access in them in Europe, but this feature is removed for the U.S. market. The carriers don’t want you using 802.11 to bypass their per minute fees, or they want to regulate your data use.

This method of selling phones is the biggest crippler of the cell phone industry. If consumers bought phones directly, there would be more competition and more features. But less control by the carriers.

That’s the only reason I can think of why they don’t do what seems obvious to me. If you walk up to a carrier and say you will sign the 2 year contract, but want to bring your own phone, they should be very happy to hear that and give you the subsidy. They can give it to you as a $10 discount for 20 months instead of $200 all at once and it would actually be cheaper for them. This would allow a much better resale market in used phones, and allow new and innovative phones — even open source homebuilt phones. Competition and free markets means innovation.

They could even exercise some control if they truly needed to. They need not let you just bring in any phone, they could still specify which ones are approved. I think that would be stupid, but they could do it. However, this would still not let them so easily control what applications you could get on the phone. For example, one reason they disabled bluetooth features (other than headset) on many phones is they wanted you to pay their fees to download your apps and photos over the network, not just sync them up to your computer for free. An open phone market would deprive them of that revenue.

So frankly, if they are so worried about just these revenue issues, then give me less subsidy. Figure out what you’re losing by letting me have my choice of phone, and take it out of the subsidy. I can still put in my choice of phone today if I am willing to pay the extra $200, but of course few want to do that, so there’s no market for such phones. This would improve that.

There must be some number which makes this work, and the innovation generated would benefit the carriers in the long run. In Asia, subsidies have largely gone away, and there is word this trend may be moving to Europe, where at least carriers are happy to have 802.11 in their phones. Let’s hope.

Replacing the FCC with "don't be spectrum selfish."

Radio technology has advanced greatly in the last several years, and will advance more. When the FCC opened up the small “useless” band where microwave ovens operate to unlicenced use, it generated the greatest period of innovation in the history of radio. As my friend David Reed often points out, radio waves don’t interfere with one another out in the ether. Interference only happens at a receiver, usually due to bad design. I’m going to steal several of David’s ideas here and agree with him that a powerful agency founded on the idea that we absolutely must prevent interference is a bad idea.

My overly simple summary of a replacement regime is just this, “Don’t be selfish.” More broadly, this means, “don’t use more spectrum than you need,” both at the transmitting and receiving end. I think we could replace the FCC with a court that adjudicates problems of alleged interference. This special court would decide which party was being more selfish, and tell them to mend their ways. Unlike past regimes, the part 15 lesson suggests that sometimes it is the receiver who is being more spectrum selfish.

Here are some examples of using more spectrum than you need:

  • Using radio when you could have readily used wires, particularly the internet. This includes mixed mode operations where you need radio at the endpoints, but could have used it just to reach wired nodes that did the long haul over wires.
  • Using any more power than you need to reliably reach your receiver. Endpoints should talk back if they can, over wires or radio, so you know how much power you need to reach them.
  • Using an omni antenna when you could have used a directional one.
  • Using the wrong band — for example using a band that bounces and goes long distance when you had only short-distance, line of sight needs.
  • Using old technology — for example not frequency hopping to share spectrum when you could have.
  • Not being dynamic — if two transmitters who can’t otherwise avoid interfering exist, they should figure out how one of them will fairly switch to a different frequency (if hopping isn’t enough.)

As noted, some of these rules apply to the receiver, not just the transmitter. If a receiver uses an omni antenna when they could be directional, they will lose a claim of interference unless the transmitter is also being very selfish. If a receiver isn’t smart enough to frequency hop, or tell its transmitter what band or power to use, it could lose.

Since some noise is expected not just from smart transmitters, but from the real world and its ancient devices (microwave ovens included) receivers should be expected to tolerate a little interference. If they’re hypersensitive to interference and don’t have a good reason for it, it’s their fault, not necessarily the source’s.  read more »

Cell carriers, let us have more than one phone on the same number

Everybody’s got old cell phones, which sit in closets. Why don’t the wireless carriers let customers cheaply have two or more phones on the same line. That would mean that when a call came in, both phones would ring (and your landlines if you desire) and you could answer in either place. You could make calls from either phone, though not both at the same time.

Right now they offer family plans, which let you have a 2nd “line” on the same account. That doesn’t save much money for the 2nd, though the 3rd and 4th are typically only $10 extra. That’s a whole extra number and account, however.

Letting customers do this should be good for the cell companies. You would be more likely to make a cell call. People would leave cells in their cars, or at other haunts (office, home or even in a coat pocket) for the “just in case I forget my cell” moments. That means more minutes billed.

The only downside is you might see people trying to share, both the very poor, or some couples, or perhaps families wanting to give a single number to a group of kids. While for most people the party line arrangement would be inconvenient, if it becomes a real problem, a number of steps could be taken to avoid it:

  • They know where the phones are. Thus don’t allow phone A to make/answer a call a short interval after phone B if they are far apart. If they are 1 hour apart, require an hour’s time.
  • To really stop things, require the non-default phones to register by calling a special number. When one phone registers, the others can’t make calls. Put limits on switching the active phone, possibly based on phone location as above.
  • Shortly after registering, or making/receiving a call, only the active phone receives calls.

I don’t think these steps are necessary, but if implemented they would make sharing very impractical and thus this service could be at no extra charge, or at worst a nominal charge of a buck or two. It could also be charged for only in months or days it’s actually used.

This is a great service for the customer and should make money for the cell co. So why don’t they?

Call my car

It does get hard to be a privacy advocate when it’s easy to think of interesting apps that make use of tracking infrastructure. Here’s one.

How often have you wanted to talk to somebody in a car next to you on the road? Consider a system where people could register their licence plate(s) with their cell phone account. Then, if they had done this, you could call a special number on your own cell phone, and enter the numeric part of their licence plate.

If both you, and the other car were close by (for example in the same cell, but often the cell companies have much closer tracking information) and both of you were moving, it could then complete the call to the other car. The other car might get to screen the call (ie. you would have to enter the reason for the call and they would hear, “Will you accept a call from about .”)

Sounds like a good product for the cell companies, able to generate minutes. Easy enough to do if both people use the same cell company, lots more work between two different companies where a protocol would be needed. Would be easier to do with texting but you don’t want people texting in cars.

Could have used it last night, was tailing a friend on the road to her house, did not have her cell number but could see her plate.

As I’ve described the system it’s opt-in, nobody calls you unless you sign up for it and register a plate. However it could be made fairly safe to opt-in with a number of protections. As noted, the system could demand the cars are moving (cell network can see that) so that it can’t be used to reach your cell phone while you are not driving. You could have screening.

It should also have a reputation system. For example, if you call me, then after we disconnect I can leave a negative reputation comment on you. Get a few of these and you’re out of the system. This assures people don’t use it simply to express road rage at the next driver or other things that are largely annoying. On the other hand you can use it to tell people their blinker is blinking or their trunk is open. (Mind you, once you are aware of a problem you would want a function to tell callers you are aware of a driving problem and to press 2 if they are calling about something else.)

And sure, for those open to it, it would be used for flirting with the cutie who gave you the eye when you were both stopped at the light.

You can of course just stick your cell number on your bumper to do this, but it would not have the opt-out and reptuation systems. With today’s cheap phone numbers, however, you could get a special number that forwards to your cell and performs the screening/reputation/etc. but is not able to use the location awareness.

If the digits are not unambiguous (or, like me, you have a custom plate that’s all letters) the system would need to offer you the cars close to you that match.

Location aware phone to call a local expert

People are always looking for location aware services for their mobile devices, including local info. But frankly the UIs on small mobile devices often are poor. When you are on a cell phone, voice to a smart person is the interface you often want.

So here’s a possible location aware service. Let people register as a “local expert” for various coordinates. That’s probably folks who live in a neighbourhood or know it very well. They would then, using a presence system on their own phone or computer, declare when they are available to take calls about that location.

Somebody sitting with a cell phone in a location could call a special 900-like number. Their phone could just transmit their location, or they would quickly say it to a human for entry. Then, their call would be routed to a local expert who is marked as available for calls. (In some cases it may simultaneously ring several experts of possible but unsure availability and give the call to whoever answers first.)

Then they could, for a fee (perhaps $1/minute?) ask the expert questions.

  • “Where’s the best Thai food?”
  • “How do I get transit to such and such location?”
  • “What’s a good Taxi company to call? Can you call me one?”
  • “Is there a shop around here that sells widgets?”
  • “Is this museum worth it?”
  • “What parts of the area are dangerous?”
  • “How much is real estate here?”

The expert would be expected to know how to answer questions about most of the restaurants, bars and shops. And they could also — so long as they disclosed any kickbacks very clearly — provide coupon codes to people that would rebate the cost of the call.

At the end of any call, the caller would stay on the line and be asked to rate the quality of the expert. They could also rate later. Experts would gain reputations for their skill, and the ones with the highest ratings would be given more calls, or be able to charge more.

Charging could be per minute, fixed-rate, or as noted, rebated with validation from a recommended merchant (though I would want to design a system so that advice is never biased by this.)

This could also be done by texting, which would be easier for experts to do, and probably be cheaper, but of course is slower for the mobile user. Many mobile users are getting pretty good at their texting. The experts would presumably be at computers with IM clients, but they could be at mobile phones as well.

To make this cheaper, one could arrange for trading minutes. Which is to say, if you put minutes into the system advising others, you can in turn use minutes getting advice when you need it. Some people might prefer to do this in a friendly way rather than charge or pay.

Experts could very well be just around the corner, physically, if they are being an expert on their local neighbourhood. It’s not out of the question they could then agree to help in person. In this case you would need to have some way to certify they’re not up to something nefarious. The fact that the call is logged and you know the home address of the expert in the database should be enough. The client might be up to something nefarious, but this seems a pretty low risk.

More IVR improvements when sourced from web page

Last week I wrote about how the 800 number you get on the web page should be special and understand your context and how frustrating it is to get an 800 number from the Contact-Us page on a web site and then be taken through a series of menus that are a waste of time for somebody who was just at the web site.

While the best thing to do is to get an eCRM system which connects the user with a session fully informed about what they were doing on the web, that’s expensive. However, a few more thoughts have come to me.

a) Most IVRs for large companies offer the choice to use a different language, such as Spanish or French, which is good. But if I was on the web site I probably made a language choice there. So the “Contact Us” page in Spanish should give an 800 number that doesn’t bother to ask me, and the “Contact Us” page in English should probably be the same.

b) “Listen carefully because some of our options has changed” is one of the biggest lies out there. By if the Contact-Us page is going to lead the customer to an IVR, why not offer a page with a basic diagram of the IVR menus. Yes, I would like it to include the “path to an agent” sequence, and I know many companies don’t want to provide that in order to keep costs down. But at the very least you can tell me about the other choices that will be on the menu, and the fact that after I press 3 I’m going to be entering my account number followed by a pound sign.

And when the options do change, you can update the web site menus, and put a date on them so we can spot if they are old.

c) Ideally, track what I’ve been doing in my web session. Did I just book a flight? Did I just place an order? Did I just try to place an order and fail? Your web server knows this stuff. Now for some reason I’m phoning. Look at what I did and if you can’t offer me a custom 800 number just for that, at least spell out my likely path through the IVR. For example, “To amend this order in a way that can’t be done HERE, Call 1-800-xxx-yyy, press 3, wait for voice and enter your order number 123456 and then the pound sign.” (Yes, it should know my order number if I just placed an order.)

On your web page, give a different customer service number that knows I've been to the web site

When you call most companies today, you get a complex “IVR” (menu with speech or touch-tone commands.) In many cases the IVR offers you a variety of customer service functions which can be done far more easily on the web site. And indeed, the prompts usually tell you to visit the web site to do such things.

However, have we all not shouted, “I am already at your damned web site, I would not be calling you to do those things!”

And they should know this. So if you’re on the web site, and you’ve done more than just click on the “Contact Us” tab, then when you finally do click on the tab asking for a phone number, you should not get the same phone number that is given to newcomers or printed in non-web locations.

You should get a special phone number that says, “This customer is already on the web site. Don’t bother offering things that can be done far more easily on the web site.”

Now I understand why they offer these things. Agents cost money and they want to divert customers to automated systems if at all possible. But If I’m already at the automated system, I am usually calling for just a few reasons. Perhaps I want web site support, but I probably need an agent to do something that’s hard or impossible to do on the web site. Why frustrate me?

Of course, even better is if you have an eCRM system that integrates the call center and the web experience. Many companies now have a click-to-call link on their page. Some even connect you with an agent who has your information already from the history on the web site, but this is annoyingly rare. All this stuff is expensive and involves buying new tools and fancy reprogramming. What I propose is pretty trivial — a much simpler menu gated by the phone number the person came in on. Any IVR can do that with a small amount of work.

Now I see one hole. The “Gets to an agent fast” number might of course be spread around, and people would want to use it for all their calls, defeating (to the company) the purpose of all those menus. But today, numbers are cheap. You can get a block of 100 numbers and change the magic one every day. Or, with a little bit of programming, really not that much, you can have the web site tell the true web-sourced callers “Dial extension xxxx when you get connected.” That’s a little fancier, requires the IVR be programmed to know about a changing extension, but again it’s not nearly so hard as buying a whole eCRM system.

I know that companies don’t want to frustrate their customers, they think the IVRs are saving them enough money to offset the frustration. But in this case, they are costing money, as the person wastes time listening to a pointles s IVR. Let’s stop it!

The VoIP world needs a pay-per-call E911 service

As most people in the VoIP world know, the FCC mandated that “interconnected” VoIP providers must provide E911 (which means 911 calling with transmission of your location) service to their customers. It is not optional, they can’t allow the customer to opt out to save money.

It sounds good on the surface, if there’s a phone there you want to be able to reach emergency services with it.

The meaning of interconnected is still being debated. It was mostly aimed at the Vonages of the world. The current definition applies to service that has a phone-like device that can make and receive calls from the PSTN. Most people don’t think it applies to PBX phones in homes and offices, though that’s not explicit. It doesn’t apply to the Skype client on your PC, one hopes, but it could very well apply if you have a more phone like device connecting to Skype, which offers Skype-in and Skype-out services on a pay per use basis and thus is interconnected with the PSTN.

Here’s the kicker. There are a variety of companies which will provide E911 connectivity services for VoIP companies. This means you pay them and they will provide a means for you to route your user’s calls to the right emergency public service access point, and pass along the address the user registered with the service. Seems like a fine business, but as far as I can tell, all these companies are charging by the customer per month, with fees between $1 and $2 per month.

This puts a lot of constraints on the pricing models of VoIP services. There’s a lot of room for innovative business models that include offering limited or trial PSTN connection for free, or per-usage billing with no monthly fees. (All services I know of do the non-PSTN calling for free.) Or services that appear free but are supported by advertising or other means. You’ve seen that Skype decided to offer free PSTN services for all of 2006. AIM Phoneline offers a free number for incoming calls, as do many others.

Read on…  read more »

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